Faith: The Journal of the International League of Religious Socialists

Spring 2004 Edition (HTML Version)

Previous Editions
In Memory of Harry Watson
Stop the Genocide in Darfur
Operation Ijtihad: Irshad Manji Raises The Call for Freedom in Islam
Jewish Voices from South Africa

In Memory of Harry Watson (1941-2004)

On 9 May the ILRS lost a most valuable friend and comrade. Harry Watson, Vice-President of the ILRS from 1994 until his health forced him to step down from the position last November, passed away after a long battle with brain cancer.

Harry had a distinguished lifetime of activism and public service in the British Labour Party, being elected in 1982 as a councillor in Norwich, England, where he went on to serve two terms as deputy leader of the council and then as Lord Mayor from 1997-98. He was a founding member of the Norfolk and Norwich branch of the Christian Socialist Movement, and had served two terms as Vice-Chair of the CSM until his illness. He was a member of the Salvation Army, and worked equally hard within that organisation for the causes in which he believed. Over 600 people attended a memorial service for him in Norwich.

Harry was always the first to inform us of some injustice in any part of the world, and he never came to it with a sense of resignation, but rather the sense that somehow, there was something that each of could do to help. He was always ready with a smile, a listening ear, and good counsel for those of us who worked with him. A remarkable person, who always looked for the good in others, and sought to do what was right and good in every way in his own life.

In the past few months we were fortunate to have been able to thank him for his many years of excellent service to our organisation and to the cause of social justice. He is sorely missed. Below we have included some comments from his comrades.

Evert Svensson, ILRS President from 1983-2003, said:
Harry was my best friend in ILRS, always side by side in our duties. We worked together many years in different parts of the world. He even came to Sweden for the congresses of our Broderskap movement. He was a true soldier in the Salvation Army. He combined the personal responsibility to his family and neighbours with a responsibility to the whole of society, yes, even with the whole world. I met him in his beloved Norwich just before last Christmas. He talked about the future of both CSM and ILRS and remained involved to the very end. We all feel very sorry to lose him, but happy to have had him among us for so many years.

Bev Thomas, CSM Chair, said:
'Harry will be sorely missed.  He was a constant encouragement to CSM and we relied heavily on his wisdom and experience.  But we also celebrate his life and the clear witness he has been to his faith.  He will continue to inspire us.'

Graham Dale, CSM Director, added:
'Harry never stopped thinking about CSM and social justice.  Even while very ill, he was pushing for action on gangmasters – before the tragedy of Morecombe Bay.  He was a great support to me in my role as Director.  He worked tirelessly for Labour and for CSM.'

David Haslam, CSM Chair for five years until March 2004, said:
'I relied often on his experience and judgement. His socialism was thoughtful, humanitarian and deeply held; he believed strongly that a socialism which worked for the common good was a practical and irresistible outworking of the Christian faith. The Movement will greatly miss Harry's gentleness, persistence and Christian grace.'

Peter Dawe, CSM Chair from 1983 to 1993 commented:
'He did a lot of hard work for the movement which led to its growth.  In setting up the Norwich branch he created a role model for others to follow and he instituted CSM’s residential weekends.'

Stephen Beer, CSM Vice Chair, said:
'Harry was both a lovely person and a significant positive influence within CSM.'

From ACUS (Austrian member of ILRS):
We are very grateful for the chance we had to work with him. We admired his integrity and gentleness. We shall always have fond memories of him.

-with thanks to Paul Franklin of CSM

Stop the Genocide in Darfur

'We must follow this situation with great care in order to detect signs that could indicate we`re heading toward a very serious situation, up until what resembles genocide.' — Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freiwalds

The problems of Africa receive little attention in our news, and even less from other governments in the world. The horrors of Rwanda took place right in front of our eyes, and no one, not even the United Nations, did much of anything to prevent the brutal slaughter of over 1.000.000 people.

Now we have a similar warning, a similar horror on the horizon, in the Darfur province of Sudan, where black Africans are being targeted for extermination by the nation's Arab ruling clique. The conflict is ethnic, not religious, as both groups are Sunni Muslims. Will we stand by again and do nothing? The Swedish government says no, and has been involved from the beginning in trying to resolve the conflict and bring relief to the victims of this newest tale of 'ethnic cleansing'. The following summary of the situation comes from Human Rights Watch.

Militias backed by the government of Sudan are committing crimes against humanity in Darfur, western Sudan, in response to a year-long insurgency. The past three months of escalating violence threaten to turn the current human rights and humanitarian crisis into a man-made famine and humanitarian catastrophe.

Using indiscriminate aerial bombardment, militia and army raiding, and denial of humanitarian assistance the government of Sudan and allied Arab militia, called janjaweed, are implementing a strategy of ethnic-based murder, rape and forcible displacement of civilians in Darfur as well as attacking the rebels.

The African or non-Arab Fur, Masaalit, and Zaghawa communities, from which the rebels are drawn, have been the main targets of this campaign of terror by the government. Almost one million Darfurian civilians have been forced to flee their homes in the past fourteen months and many have lost family members, livestock and all other assets.

The janjaweed militias are drawn from Arab nomadic groups. Their armed encroachment on African Zaghawa, Masaalit and Fur pastures and livestock in past years resulted in local armed self-defense measures by the targeted communities when they realized the government would not protect them. Instead of quelling the friction, the Sudanese government has increased its backing for the Arabs. Khartoum has recruited over 20,000 janjaweed which it pays, arms, uniforms, and with which it conducts joint operations, using the militias as a counterinsurgency force.

While many of the abuses are committed by the janjaweed, the Sudanese government is complicit in these abuses and holds the highest degree of responsibility for pursuing a military policy that has resulted in the commission of crimes against humanity.

The two rebel groups in Darfur—the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)—claim that they seek redress of decades of grievances over perceived political marginalization, socio-economic neglect, and discrimination towards African Darfurians by successive federal governments in Khartoum. In reaction to the insurgency, government forces and allied Arab militias are implementing a scorched earth campaign that has depopulated and burned hundreds of villages across the region, seeking to destroy any potential support base for the rebels.

More than 110,000 Zaghawa and Masaalit have fled across the border into neighboring Chad and at least 750,000 people, many of them Fur, remain displaced within Darfur, constantly vulnerable to attacks by predatory militia who rape, assault, abduct and kill civilians with full impunity. Attacks are on-going and the number of displaced persons grows by the day.

Amid increasing national and international awareness of the abuses taking place in Darfur, the government of Sudan has denied the existence of this situation and refused to provide protection or assistance to the affected population of Darfur. Despite warnings from the international community, led by the United Nations, that the Sudanese government must take immediate steps to end the abuses and provide security to the targeted villages and persons already displaced, the government’s forces continue to recruit new militia members, displace civilians, and burn villages.

The government’s recruiting, arming and otherwise backing bands of janjaweed militia has built on and drastically escalated ethnic polarization in Darfur. The janjaweed are encouraged by their freedom and impunity to loot, rape, pillage, and to occupy the lands vacated after attacks, and have even launched cross-border attacks into Chad, which is currently hosting more than 110,000 refugees from Darfur. Chad, itself home to Zaghawa, Masaalit, and Arab ethnic groups currently involved in the Darfur conflict, is receiving the spillover of a conflict believed, by its victims, to be a campaign to destroy them based on their ethnic and racial origin.

The strategy pursued by the government of Sudan now risks destabilizing the region and the ongoing peace talks aimed at ending more than twenty years of war in the south—where the same government strategies of massive forced displacement, scorched earth campaigns, and arming militias have repressed the southern population beyond endurance.

If abuses do not end immediately, the human rights and humanitarian consequences in Darfur, already appalling, will worsen. Food security, always precarious in Darfur, is already seriously affected by the events, and with more than 750,000 persons internally displaced—the bulk of the region’s farming community—this year’s harvest will sorely decline. There are increasing signs that Darfur could face a man-made famine if no intervention takes place, adding thousands of lives of men, women and children to the unknown number of victims the government of Sudan has already destroyed.

Click here to learn more about the crisis in Darfur and what you can do to raise your voice against impending genocide.

Operation Ijtihad: Irshad Manji Raises The Call for Freedom in Islam

The recent events in our world, as well as the challenge faced by many in European countries of learning to live with newcomers in their societies, has resulted in closer attention being paid to the ideas of Islam and its believers. Irshad Manji is a Canadian leftist and a Muslim woman who has written an exciting and provocative new book, The Trouble With Islam, on the long-suppressed idea of 'ijtihad' or the individual's right to determine their own vision of Islam. (Note: the Winter 2002 edition of Faith looked at ijtihad from an Iranian perspective.) Here she talks about her book (which has been translated into Dutch and German, with translations in French and Spanish coming this year) and its intentions.

The Trouble with Islam is an open letter from me, a Muslim voice of reform, to concerned citizens worldwide — Muslim and not. It's about why my faith community needs to come to terms with the diversity of ideas, beliefs and people in our universe, and why non-Muslims have a pivotal role in helping us get there.

The themes I'm exploring with the utmost honesty include:

  • the inferior treatment of women in Islam;
  • the Jew-bashing that so many Muslims persistently engage in; and
  • the continuing scourge of slavery in countries ruled by Islamic regimes.

I appreciate that every faith has its share of literalists. Christians have their Evangelicals. Jews have the ultra-Orthodox. For God's sake, even Buddhists have fundamentalists.

But what this book hammers home is that only in Islam is literalism mainstream. Which means that when abuse happens under the banner of Islam, most Muslims have no clue how to dissent, debate, revise or reform.

The Trouble with Islam shatters our silence. It shows Muslims how we can re-discover Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking — a tradition known as 'ijtihad' — and re-discover it precisely to update Islam for the 21st century. The opportunity to update is especially available to Muslims in the West, because it's here that we enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged without fear of state reprisal. In that sense, the Islamic reformation begins in the West.

It doesn't, however, end here. Not by a long shot. People throughout the Islamic world need to know of their God-given right to think for themselves. So The Trouble with Islam outlines a global campaign to promote innovative approaches to Islam. I call this non-military campaign 'Operation Ijtihad.' In turn, the West's support of this campaign will fortify national security, making Operation Ijtihad a priority for all of us who wish to live fatwa-free lives.

That's the book. The question now becomes: What possessed me to write it? Once I tell you a little about me, I think you'll see where my own passion comes from.

Why I'm struggling with Islam

As refugees from Idi Amin's Uganda, my family and I settled just outside of Vancouver in 1972. I grew up attending two types of schools: the secular public school of most North American kids and then, for several hours at a stretch every Saturday, the Islamic religious school (madressa).

I couldn't quite reconcile the open and tolerant world of my public school with the rigid and bigoted world inside my madressa. But I had enough faith to ask questions — plenty of them.

My first question for my madressa teacher was, 'Why can't girls lead prayer?' I graduated to asking more nuanced questions, such as, 'If the Koran came to Prophet Muhammad as a message of peace, why did he command his army to kill an entire Jewish tribe?'

You can imagine that such questions irritated the hell out of my madressa teacher, who routinely put down women and trashed the Jews. He and I reached the ultimate impasse over yet another question: 'Where,' I asked, 'is the evidence of the "Jewish conspiracy" against Islam? You love to talk about it, but what's the proof?' That question, posed at the age of 14, got me booted out of the madressa. Permanently.

At this point, I had a choice to make: I could walk away from my Muslim faith and get on with being my 'emancipated' North American self, or I could give Islam another chance. Out of fairness to the faith, I gave Islam another chance. And another. And another. For the past 20 years, I've been educating myself about Islam. As a result, I've discovered a progressive side of my religion — in theory.

But I remain a hugely ambivalent Muslim because of what's happening 'on the ground' — massive human rights violations, particularly against women and religious minorities — in the name of Allah.

Liberal Muslims say that what I'm describing isn't 'true' Islam. But these Muslims should own up to something: Prophet Muhammad himself said that religion is the way we conduct ourselves toward others. By that standard, how Muslims actually behave is Islam, and to sweep that reality under the rug of theory is to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our fellow human beings.

That's why I'm struggling. That's why I'm passionate. And that leads me to what I consider to be the trouble with Islam.

The trouble with Islam is...

As I see it, the trouble with Islam is that individual lives are too small and the lies we tell to excuse that fact are too big. Neither has to be the case under a compassionate and merciful God, as Muslims like to describe Allah. The Trouble with Islam, then, is a plea for all of us, as citizens of the world, to help Islam fulfill its glorious humanitarian potential, so that we all gain in diversity, dignity and security.

At the beginning of my book, I call myself a 'Muslim Refusenik'. That doesn't mean I refuse to be a Muslim; it means that I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of God.

In that spirit, I'm asking Muslims in the West a very basic question: Will we remain spiritually infantile, caving to cultural pressures to clam up and conform, or will we mature into full-fledged citizens, defending the very pluralism that allows us to be in this part of the world in the first place?

My question for non-Muslims is equally basic: Will you succumb to the intimidation of being called 'racists,' or will you finally challenge us Muslims to take responsibility for our role in what ails Islam?

The Trouble with Islam is a wake-up call for honesty and change on everybody's part. Let's create conversations where none existed before.

To learn more about Irshad Manji and her book, click here.

Jewish Voices from South Africa

Through our comrade Cedric Mayson in South Africa, we received the following statement from a group known as Jewish Voices SA, who provide a perspective from a part of the progressive Jewish community in that nation.

Jewish Voices SA is a group of Jewish South Africans who, in the light of the South African experience of a negotiated political settlement, seek to promote tolerant, critical dialogue on the Middle East. We affirm the need for diversity of opinion and debate on all major issues confronting Jewish South Africans, including our engagement in South Africa as Jews. While we recognise that there are divergent and often opposed views on the conditions of a settlement, and while we acknowledge too that our distance from the situation leaves us ignorant to some of the complexities of the problem, we do know from our South African experience that even seemingly intractable conflicts canbe resolved — provided that both sides are willing to negotiate in good faith.

Why We Are Concerned
We, as Jews in the diaspora, experience the conflict, not simply through our concern for those people living and suffering there — be they Israelis or Palestinians. We experience the conflict through the effects that it is having on us, Jewish communities in the diaspora. We see how the violence is fuelling religious intolerance, and more particularly, racist stereotyping of Palestinians and Muslims. We see too how the violence feeds a new wave of anti-Semitic hate-speech and violence. We experience a hardening of attitiudes and relations between Jewish South Africans, Muslims and others who, correctly or incorrectly, draw parallels between the history of apartheid and that of Israel. We have watched how, as attitudes harden on both sides, views that question or doubt the official line are stigmatised as dissident or other.

We acknowledge that there are those amongst us who support the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state and take comfort from its existence; this, after the dire experiences of European Jews in the twentieth century. We recognise too that there are others who see greater Jewish security through a secular constitutional democracy that accommodates Jews and Palestinians in a single state. Despite these differences none of us believe that the State of Israel can be a place of security and democracy for Jews, unless it is a source of peace and security for all those who live in the Middle East. We believe that it is only through an open, democratic debate that a just solution can be found and consensus built.

As South Africans
From our South African experience we have also learnt that those with more power need to make the first steps. In the light of this, we believe that in order to make negotiations possible, Israel should withdraw its forces from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and should be prepared to enter negotiations on a final settlement either on the basis of a two-state solution or, like South Africa, on the basis of a unitary Palestinian-Israeli state.

We are aware that other issues like the future of Jewish settlers, the status of Jerusalem and consideration of the plight of people displaced from their homes in 1948 need to be the subject of negotiations. We believe these topics need to be addressed in due course.

However, we believe that a start needs to be made to create the atmosphere in which both sides can resume talks with dignity. As we experienced in South Africa a decade ago, such a start should not be held hostage to individual acts of terror by those who wish to sabotage the peace.

We call on all members of the Jewish community to support this statement.

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